How fitting it was that the dying afternoon light bled red into the horizon. As darkness fell across the land, did it herald a similar death for any potential relationships she might have with these four men?
Or was she just being really negative and melodramatic?
Mei couldn’t help but curse herself for screwing up. After they all had left, she’d spent the next hour fretting over their return. What could she say to make things better? To keep herself busy, she decided to make her own lean-to.
She hefted a long branch and wedged it between a couple of tree trunks on the edge of the clearing, about waist high. It was crooked, but she couldn’t seem to straighten it out so that it would stay in place and be level at the same time. Giving up on making it look good, she wandered all over looking for deadwood to make a roof. Unfortunately, the area was already pretty much picked clean. There weren’t even any palm fronds laying around; they’d all been used up. And she didn’t think it would be easy climbing a tree for fresh ones.
She stared at the mediocre result of her effort. The little lean-to was lopsided and had three branches for a roof, which would do nothing. She looked over her shoulder at one of the other constructions.
Unlike hers, which faced the jungle, their lean-tos faced the fire. They each had a floor of dried grass about the space of a king-sized bed so that two people had lots of room. Fully roofed, each was covered in grass and palm leaves thick enough to prevent water from getting in. In short, they were well made.
Then she looked back at hers again. “Crap.” She sighed. “It had better not rain tonight.” Maybe she could find more materials tomorrow to make it better. Not that she wanted to stick around long-term. She’d worked so hard to escape and had been through so much. She didn’t want to just hang out here until she was made prisoner again.
The others seemed resigned to returning to regular prison life. To them, being here was just a vacation from prison life, one they knew had to end. Not wanting to join them, was there a way to convince the others to escape this island as well?
Why didn’t they dream of more? How could they just give up so easily? Sure, she understood some of their objections, but still, their lack of effort and enthusiasm felt underwhelming.
Then again, was it so surprising? She sat down cross-legged in the grass next to her child-like attempt at making a shelter. She’d seen negative attitudes like theirs before, back home. She had once been an enthusiastic freedom fighter. But not everyone was. Hopelessness and apathy were probably the norm.
“Join us,” she’d implore others while recruiting for the cause. “We can make a difference. We can make life better for all of us.”
“What’s the point?” others would scoff, unmoved. “The government’s too big, too powerful. One person can’t make a difference.”
“That’s why we need to work together!”
“No thanks. I’m not going to waste my time. Besides, you’re just going to end up pissing them off. I don’t want to make trouble.” And they’d walk away, more content to live in a fearful world of secret police and tyrannical power than do even the least amount to change things.
She’d had so many disheartening conversations like that. She and the other protesters would get together now and then and vent about it. Here they were, sacrificing their time, their very lives, for the benefit of others. And yet those people couldn’t be bothered to help, even though they could get something out of it. So then, what were we fighting for? Why get up at dawn and spend the day holding signs outside of government offices demanding change? Why spend hours investigating corruption and writing articles only to have people ignore injustice in favour of reading the latest sports scores?
So many people just don’t care about anything that really matters. They focused on the latest TV episodes and buying new stuff they didn’t need. It was enough to make you lose faith in the human species.
Then again, she realized with some chagrin, she’d been feeling that way too, since her trial: beaten down and thinking there was nothing she could ever do against the overwhelming odds against her. She was no better than them. Still, now that she kind of had a shot at a better life, she wanted to fight for it.
Maybe she just needed to try harder to convince them. She’d just met these four and they’d barely talked. She needed to fix things and find a way to change their minds about getting off this island and staying out of prison.
So when Lance and Armand returned with armfuls of fruit, she put a big smile on her face and cheer in her tone. “Wow! Those look great!”
Lance nodded without looking at her and tipped his fruit onto a palm leaf not far from the fire. Armand didn’t even acknowledge her.
“I’m going to nap,” the American told Armand. “Wake me when they get back with the fish.” Then he ducked into his lean-to and lay down, his back to them.
She eagerly strode forwards. “Can I help with anything?”
Armand silently shook his head and waved her off before putting his fruit next to the rest. Then he glanced at the fire and frowned. “You let the fire go down,” he muttered.
She halted. “Uh, sorry?”
He tsked in annoyance and spoke somewhat harshly. “Do you know how hard it is to make fire by hand? Whoever stays behind in camp is responsible for keeping it going.” He grabbed a handful of grass from a pile and knelt over the last of the embers, blowing on them and feeding the grass to the glowing sparks.
“Oh. Sorry. Nobody said,” she lamely replied, abashed. It hadn’t even occurred to her to maintain the fire. That really shouldn’t have been surprising. She took one look at it now and a memory of pain flashed up the length of her back and her head. She recalled the smell of burning hair and skin; it made her nauseous. She kept her distance, not wanting to get close enough to feel its heat ever again. She fumbled for something to say to him, trying to establish some kind of conversation, but just felt lost. Awkward silence reigned.
A while later, Juan and Cheeto returned bearing three fish, one as long as a man’s arm.
“Wow! Great catches!” she praised them, trying again.
Juan did nothing to reply. Cheeto frowned at her, perhaps in disgust? Or was she reading too much into it?
Daring to take a step closer to the fire, which was now burning once again, she ignored their coldness. “Can I help clean them or something?”
“We’re fine.” Juan didn’t look at her either. He sat next to a fresh leaf he’d torn off some plant, long and wide. Then he went about preparing the fish. Cheeto did the same with another. They had no knives, only broken sticks with sharp, flat ends. It was a slow, messy process gutting the fish and attempting to debone.
Mei watched them pull the guts out with their fingers and gagged. Part of her was glad they’d turned down her offer to help. Then a sudden thought struck her. Were they going to share this food with her? Or, as a newcomer, was she expected to fend for herself?
She opened her mouth to speak but stopped. They were obviously upset, which she didn’t entirely understand. She hadn’t insulted them or anything. Wasn’t the cold shoulder they were giving her a little excessive? Were they going to go so far as to keep all the food for themselves because of it? She wanted to ask but felt embarrassed, as if she didn’t have the right.
Unsure of herself, she stood and awkwardly motioned to the fishing rod laying on the ground next to Cheeto as he worked. Well, the rod was just a stick with some thread that had probably been stripped off a uniform and a hook made out of a tiny piece of bent metal. “Um, could I borrow that?”
He looked up and frowned at her. “Why?”
“So…I could catch something too?”
He snorted in definite contempt. “What? The fish we caught isn’t good enough for you, is that it? Why? Cuz we’re criminals? We’re dirty? You don’t want to touch what we touch?” He sneered.
“No!” she exclaimed. “I just… I didn’t know if we were sharing.”
Juan’s dark brown eyes looked up at her. “Why? You don’t think people like us share? We only care about ourselves?”
“No!” She was growing exasperated. “Come on, guys. You’re acting weird just because I said why I was here. And you wouldn’t let me come with you.”
“Your job was to look after the fire,” Armand snapped again.
“But nobody—“ She sighed in aggravation. “You never explained anything, and I just got here. I don’t know how things work. Please, can’t we all be friends here?”
Cheeto sneered again. “Friends? You sure we’re good enough for you? Maybe you want to go find better friends, huh? You don’t have to slum with us.”
She rolled her eyes and tried to joke about the situation. “Oh, come on! You’re pissed off because I was wrongfully convicted, and you weren’t? Gee, I’m sorry I’m not also a criminal.”
Juan nudged Cheeto. “See? Told you. She looks down on us.”
She panicked. “I don’t—“
“Hey,” Cheeto told her in a real serious tone, “why don’t you go hang out with those cannibals. They’re not lowly criminals neither. That’s your people, right?” He shooed her off.
“Hey!” She was growing angry now. “I never said I look down on anyone.”
“But you’re thinking it, right?” Armand’s voice was calm. He chewed on a piece of grass, his eyes calm but not friendly. “We real criminals are just losers to you, aren’t we? Society’s scum. You’re some big-shot journalist fighting against the evil government. You’re a good person. Hero. So incroyable they took you down and threw you in here to hurt you. Must be hard being forced to spend your time with people like us. You know, the ones who actually belong here because they’ve done bad things. Because they’re bad people. Unlike you.”
She took a breath and tried to calm down, not that it was working. They were being really rude. “You’re right; I don’t see myself as a criminal. So what? I have to go out and rob somebody before we can get along? Maybe I should commit murder, and then we can be friends?”
“Hey, big shot,” Cheeto asked, “who’d you work for?”
She gave him a puzzled look. “BBC. Why?”
“Ah!” He nodded knowingly. “Big black you know what. Yeah, I know lots of sluts who work for that.”
Juan barked a laugh and Armand smiled. Cheeto had a smug grin on his face.
She gave him a level gaze. “I guess I should apologize for spending years studying and working hard and having a real job? As opposed to what? What was your higher calling? Dealing drugs?”
Cheeto made to stand up, looking pissed. “You wanna go?”
Lance rose from his bed and his tone was sharp. He glared at her. “You know, I’m getting really sick of your attitude.”
“What is your problem?” she exclaimed at them all, really frustrated now.
Cheeto shook his head at her and went back to cleaning fish.
She huffed. “Should I just go find my own food then?”
“Ah!” Armand loudly swore in frustration. He snatched a fruit from the pile next to him and angrily whipped it right at Mei.
She jerked back in surprise and the fruit bounced off her chest and hit the ground. She gave him a confused, wounded look. They locked gazes for a moment, the whites of his eyes bright in the firelight. Then she bent down and picked the fruit up. “Thanks,” she muttered.
Nobody spoke after that. The four men cleaned the fish and opened them wide with sticks before propping them up at the edge of the fire to cook. They sat together, talking quietly amongst themselves, making no attempt to include Mei.
Mei sat just outside the circle of firelight, confused and a bit hurt. She couldn’t understand why their reactions were so strong and so negative. Why were they being hostile? And why was she making it worse each time she opened her mouth? She didn’t know what was wrong with her. It was like she’d completely lost her calm and professionalism.
Depressed, she dug into her fruit. After not eating all day since respawning, her stomach craved sustenance, and the fruit was juicy and divine. Of course, it wasn’t nearly enough to sate her, but she didn’t hold out hope for getting any of the fish. She wasn’t about to press her luck and ask for any.
As it turned out, they didn’t bother to share. Whether it was because they were angry with her or because she just sat on her own in silence and foolishly refused to ask for some, she didn’t know. But she didn’t feel like she had the right to say anything. And she was angry too. She didn’t deserve to be treated this way.
Shortly after supper, Lance stood up and brushed himself off. He looked at Armand. “You have first watch?”
The Frenchman man bowed his head.
“So I’ve got second. I’m heading to bed then.” He returned to his lean-to.
The others didn’t reply. Armand ate very slowly and delicately. Juan and Cheeto scarfed their food and then played some kind of game. Instead of dice, they had a handful of flat sticks, each with one long side stained with fish blood. Then they gambled for pebbles, tossing the sticks and guessing how many dark sides would turn up.
Feeling alone, Mei watched the others for a bit. Eventually, her eyes were drawn to the fire. The flames haunted her. But as the night deepened, she found she couldn’t look away. She couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night, about being inside a fire just like that one.
Feeling her fear rise, she tried to challenge it, tried to force herself to stare into the flickering orange and blue flames, tried to force herself not to cringe at the memory of her hair burning all around her, the back of her skull melting, her back charring and her flesh dripping into the embers, causing the fire to flare even higher.
A distant voice called to her. “You ok?”
She wasn’t sure who’d said it. Or even if someone actually had. Maybe it was just her imagination. She couldn’t tell because there was only the fire and her memories. She was panting now, sweating, her hands shaking. But she couldn’t look away.
She felt herself struggling against the weight of that man’s foot, helpless. She saw the way he watched her from above, his eyes red and filled with flames like some devil straight out of hell. An evil smile on his lips as he enjoyed watching her pain and thrilled in killing her.
“Hey. What’s going on?” A different voice? More worried? She couldn’t tell.
Mei blinked rapidly, heart racing, and looked up.
And there he was.
He stood behind the others, illuminated by the fire, just as he had been before, his eyes reflecting the flames and his teeth bright white as he turned his cruel smile down on her.
She fell back and screamed with all her soul.
Armand half rose and took a step towards her.
Juan looked worried. “What is it?”
Cheeto caught sight of Tattoos and he, too, jumped and scrambled backwards. “What the—? Who are you?”
The others turned and rose in surprise. Lancelot, perhaps woken by the commotion, leapt to his feet.
Juan dove for a club. Cheeto snatched up the crude stick-knife he’d used to clean fish.
Mei cowered on the ground in the dark, filled with fear.
Tattoos grinned wider.
She completely freaked out. Clumsily scrambling to her feet, she turned and bolted, running as fast as possible. She plunged into the dark jungle, not caring what might lay in wait for her, only knowing that she had to get away from him.